Familiar beats in this coming of age tale feel fresh under Gerwig’s camera eye.
Greta Gerwig is one of those artists who you can’t help but notice. If it isn’t a film about her or her character, she’s still probably going to be the one you’re left thinking about. Her Florence Marr in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg was written to be the romantic interest of Ben Stiller’s self-interested Roger, but her character’s arc, her intrigue about his aimless life, wound up being the most compelling aspect of the film. She’s second to Lola Kirke in Mistress America (a film Gerwig co-wrote), but her sort of screwball, hopelessly romantic character will dance around your mind for days, her lines repeating in your head. She shines so bright it often swallows up most of the performers around her.
Lady Bird is Gerwig’s first solo directing and writing effort (though she’s built up plenty of writing experience with partner Noah Baumbach). The lead goes to the chameleon-like Saorsie Ronan, who plays a somewhat ditzy but intelligent and iconoclastic high-schooler who asks that everyone call her ‘Lady Bird’. Behind the camera, Gerwig’s influence, her artistic vision and, just, whatever it is, the ‘Gerwig effect’, maybe, is palpable. This is a collaborative effort, but it’s a Gerwig film through and through.
Lady Bird tells a coming of age story that includes a bunch of familiar tropes like losing one’s virginity, fighting with your parents, ditching your real friend for the cool kids and, ultimately, wondering what the hell you’re going to do after high school. Ronan is 23 but she plays a high school kid effortlessly, perhaps at times a little too articulately. The actress’s heritage is Irish, but you won’t find a trace of the accent—she’s one of screen’s best speakers. Scenes in which she sobs uncontrollably while listening to Dave Matthews’ ‘Crash into Me’ after some startling news about her boyfriend ring as true as the moments with her mother (a cold, brilliant Laurie Metcalfe), including a nasty argument in the local thrift shop, followed immediately by mutual appreciation of a dress. Playing parts sprung from the odd, incorrigible mind of Gerwig, the cast do marvellously. Tracey Letts’ is heartbreaking as the avuncular, depressed father, and Timothée Chalamet is hilarious as the disaffected, cool Kyle, who reads the line ‘I don’t believe in money’ with committed sincerity.
Though the mother/daughter relationship between Lady Bird and Marion may raise some eyebrows for its nearing emotional abuse without deeply exploring the ramifications, Lady Bird is probably the year’s best American comedy, and one of its hardest hitting dramas. Usually a debut film is cause to announce a major talent, but Gerwig has been one of the most promising things in American film for years now. I hope the rest of the world can see that.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Lady Bird will be released in cinemas 15 February 2018.